Playing one out of four quarters of competent football is usually a recipe for playoff elimination.
In the case of UW-Whitewater on Saturday, however, a little more than one strong quarter was good enough to secure a spot in the NCAA Division III semifinals.
Bethel (Minnesota) had a nightmare start that consisted of two interceptions, a blocked punt and a botched snap on another punt in the first 17 minutes as Whitewater piled up 23 quick points.
The Royals did all they could to get back in the game but didn’t have enough as the host Warhawks won 26-12 in an NCAA Division III quarterfinal game at blustery Perkins Stadium.
Whitewater running backs Ronny Ponick and Alex Peete combined for 240 rushing yards and three touchdowns to propel the Warhawks into their first semifinal game since 2015.
The opportunistic Warhawks will travel to Belton, Texas, next Saturday to battle Mary Hardin-Baylor, which knocked off St. John’s (Minnesota) 21-18.
Whitewater will need to be opportunistic next week to win against one of the top teams in Division III.
“The thing I was excited about was taking away the football,” UW-Whitewater coach Kevin Bullis said. “We constantly talk about taking away the football and winning the turnover ratio, and today it definitely paid off.”
The Warhawks got things rolling with Bailey Bruenig’s blocked punt at the Royals’ 19-yard line. Whitewater quickly capitalized with a Wojciech Gasienica 30-yard field goal.
Royals freshman quarterback Jaran Roste’s day quickly worsened when he threw a pair of interceptions on the next two drive—one to Mark McGrath and one to Breunig—with both coming in Bethel territory.
Ponick took advantage with touchdown runs of 5 and 27 yards to give Whitewater a 16-0 first-quarter lead.
Special teams failed the Royals again early in the second quarter when punter Blake Hottle mishandled a snap and was forced to fall on the ball at the Royals’ 11.
Four plays later, Peete tacked on a 1-yard score to make it 23-0 early in the second quarter.
“Those (turnovers) are the obvious things that come back to haunt you,” Bethel coach Steve Johnson said. “We had a little trouble in our punting game and it was tough, but I felt like you can’t give up on what you’re doing, especially this deep in. And our defense kept us in there and cut the bleeding down.”
Johnson’s team cut down the mistakes down and seized momentum behind Roste’s touchdown runs of 4 and 11 yards that cut the deficit to 23-12 by halftime.
The lackluster Warhawks offense managed just three points the rest of the game, relying mostly on the running game. Whitewater senior quarterback Cole Wilber struggled against the Bethel pressure, completing just 1 of 9 passes for eight yards with an interception.
“Cole had a tough day today, but he kept on leading his team,” Bullis said. “He’s been so on all year, and there was an opportunity to have an off day and he had an off day.”
Fortunately for Whitewater, Roste struggled throwing the ball, as well. He threw two more interceptions in the second half, including an ill-advised throw at the Warhawks’ 3-yard line that was intercepted by Matt Anderson in the end zone.
“To get that turnover with our backs against the wall was huge,” Whitewater linebacker Bryce Leszcynski said. “It took the momentum away, and it’s a credit to the defense and our coaching staff to stay poised.”
Whitewater’s defense tightened from there, and the Warhawks’ ground game chewed valuable time off the clock to preserve the victory and set up a matchup with the Cru. Top-ranked Mount Union will face Johns Hopkins in the other national semifinal.
WHITEWATER 26, BETHEL 12
Bethel 0 12 0 0—12
UW-Whitewater 16 7 0 3—26
Scoring: W—Wojciech Gasienica 30 field goal. W—Ronny Ponick 5 run (run failed). W—Ponick 27 run (Gasienica kick). W—Alex Peete 1 run (Gasienica kick). B—Jaran Roste 4 run (pass failed). B—Roste 11 run (kick failed). W—Gasienica 22 field goal.
Statistics: First downs—B 12, W 11. Rushing—B 34-65, W 50-230. Passing yards—B 156, W 8. Passes—B 19-14-4, W 9-1-1. Fumbles—none. Penalties—B 0-0, W 2-15.